Tools in Action: Taking on Overwork

A few months ago Robert Gass released a new tool on this blog, Boundaries for Work: A Contract with Yourself, all about how to create structures to keep work in its place so that you can be your most powerful and effective when you are at work, and be fully present for the rest of life when you’re not.

The post got a lot of hits and has been shared widely. It addresses one of the great challenges faced by those working for social change — how to balance work and other dimensions of our lives. The tool provides a format for individuals to create personal contracts to manage and contain work, given that technology allows us to work 24/7.


CCC Executive Director Deepak Bhargava, speaking at an immigration rally in front of the White House.

We heard from the Center for Community Change (CCC) that they used our tool among their executive office team, and they were seeing progress toward an exciting culture shift as a result. They’ve found that proactively addressing overwork and providing organizational support for better boundaries can boost morale, job satisfaction and retention, and prevent burnout. Not surprising that this enlightened realization came from one of The Nonprofit Times’ best nonprofits to work for in 2015!

I talked to Julia Paik, Senior Manager of the Office of the Executive Director at CCC, who shared some of what they have learned about how organizations can drive an effort to set boundaries for work.

Julia Paik, Senior Manager of CCC's Office of the Executive Director.

Julia Paik, Senior Manager of CCC’s Office of the Executive Director.

CCC was already looking for ways to help the people in their executive office better sustain themselves when our Boundaries for Work tool came along and executive director Deepak Bhargava shared it with the team. The nine people on their executive team all created personal contracts for work. They also made team commitments as a group.

In addition to the four building blocks in the tool (limits on hours of work per week, limits on travel, a beginning and end to work days, and work-free zones), some on the team made goals to go to the gym, be home by a certain time, step outside for a walk during the workday, etc.

It can be difficult to hold yourself to a personal commitment if the workplace culture is not supportive, so it’s a great idea to make a team container too. CCC’s executive office team came up with four new agreements for how they work together as a team.

  • No expectation of an immediate response to emails sent after 7pm and on weekends. This is intended to allow space for folks to disconnect and not feel like they have to be “on” 24-7, and feel okay about it. Staff have said they feel more rejuvenated and energized at work when they can disconnect more fully outside of work. If something is urgent, the team agreed to call or text to obtain a more immediate response.
  • Send meeting materials 24-48 hours in advance. This helps ensure everyone is prepared and that meeting time is well spent. On that note, they’ve also built the Fabulous POP Model into their meeting structure, which has increased their meeting productivity and reduced the time they spend in meetings.
  • Make a practice of clarifying trade-offs for new projects or commitments. The intention is to be really conscious about the consequences of taking on new work, acknowledge that other things will have to give, and make sure the choice is worthwhile. Especially in social change work it’s tempting to say yes to everything, but that’s not usually sustainable.
  • Regularly reflect and check in on these commitments. When they made their personal commitments they shared them with the team. Now they can support and hold each other accountable and also get to know each other better in the process. They also check in to reflect and evaluate progress periodically on their team commitments.

Julia says that this process has had a real impact on some members of the team, and at a very minimum, everyone on the team finds value and appreciates the heightened awareness about how they manage the way they work. They’ve managed to reduce working hours for some executive leaders who were working beyond their personal limits, and some are leaving work earlier without feeling like they need to always be “on”. It has boosted team morale, and created space to have conversations about workload and organizational culture. All without any reduction in what they are accomplishing!

Any organization that is serious about impact should be investing in the health and wellbeing of its people. Here are a few lessons for other organizations based on CCC’s experience.

  1. Put someone in charge. It helps to have a point person who can galvanize the effort, coordinate the creation and sharing of personal and team contracts, give people feedback, track commitments made, and drive ongoing check-ins.
  2. Start by tracking how you spend your time. This step isn’t completely necessary, but the folks at CCC found it illuminating and it informed their whole process. For several months, they tracked total hours worked, time spent in meetings and recurring meetings, and nights spent traveling. The results were eye-opening and motivated some people to make a change.
  3. Share personal contracts with the group. This increases accountability and can improve the way teammates work together. Go a step further and post everyone’s commitments in a shared space in the office or online.
  4. Check in regularly about how it’s going. This is critical to signal ongoing commitment to change ingrained habits. Change won’t come overnight, so it’s helpful to share what we’re learning, what’s working and what’s not along the way. Some people at CCC were energized by the competitive challenge of trying to stay within their containers.
  5. Use other tools to inform and support the process. CCC used our tools, the Urgency Index and Managing your Workload, to help diagnose and solve problems relating to overwork.

Setting boundaries for work isn’t just about working less. As Julia told me, it’s about helping people be fully at their best. Overwork is one of the biggest challenges in progressive social movements. While it may help you meet a deadline, it’s a short-term solution that can do long-term harm to our organizations and movements.

Some of the most effective and successful leaders of the progressive movement today actually have good boundaries and honor their personal lives, homes, and families. Organizations that value and encourage healthy work-life balance have better morale, staff retention, and job satisfaction, which can translate to greater impact and outcomes.